Talking Is Overrated, and Other News


On the Shelf


  • Talking has never done much for people. A speech act is a lot of hooey, if you ask me. Singing—that’s where the action is. It’s got all the expressiveness of language, without all that language. In her interview with Ben Lerner, the artist Steffani Jemison discusses—among other things—her interest in musical systems as a potential form of communication, especially among marginalized cultures: “It began with my interest in the work of a nineteenth-century composer named François Sudre who developed Solresol, an artificial universal language designed at a time when individual nation-states were consolidating in Europe. Sudre envisioned ‘speaking’ through the seven pitches of the diatonic scale, or the syllables assigned to those pitches in the solfège singing system, or really any system with seven units … A pre-Esperanto musical Esperanto. Every word is a combination of pitches. So a word might be (sings) do-re, which means ‘you.’ Or it might be [she sings] do-mi-sol-re, which means ‘power.’ Each melody indicates a different word. The symmetrical reversal of the melody has the opposite meaning. So re-sol-mi-do means ‘the opposite of power,’ however one might understand that. Of course, artificial languages don’t work, but I’m interested in why they recur at two extremes: first, in utopian visions of logical, frictionless communication (like Solresol); second, in completely opaque private languages like the kind I invented to write in my diary when I was a kid. Black Americans have a long history of creating and sustaining private and culturally specific languages and codes.”
  • It’s important to sample the cuisines of other nations, especially when those cuisines are mass-produced and cheaply imported as part of the inexorable march of global capital. To that end, Talia Lavin has some great news: Russia’s best fast-food chain has arrived in America. She writes, “Teremok, a low-key purveyor of Russian staples, is almost comically ubiquitous in Moscow; a map of its locations shows a city Dalmatian-spotted with kiosks and restaurants, all boasting the company’s signature red nesting-doll logo … The two New York branches—in Union Square and Chelsea—are the chain’s first forays outside Russia, and are the result of a process years in the making. Why America? In an interview with the Russian magazine Forum Daily, the chain’s founder, Mikhail Goncharov, had a simple answer: ‘It’s the motherland of fast food’ … Buckwheat groats—known in Russia, where they are omnipresent, as grechnevaya kasha—have been repackaged as a ‘superfood’; the familiar Russian beet is touted for its vitamins.”

  • Michèle Roberts offers a whirlwind tour of prostitution in literature: “In French culture, the image of the prostitute forms part of the fabric of modernity anxiously woven by male poets. Baudelaire, exemplifying the flâneur, talked of ‘the sacred prostitution of the soul,’ meaning that he could mingle minds with chance-met strangers, but places sexually free, wandering women merely as projections of his shadow self … For the French novelists, women living as prostitutes in the ‘splendour and misery’ pinpointed by Balzac function as statuesque allegories of social upheaval and change. Zola’s courtesan heroine, Nana, behaves like a virus, rising from her working-class origins to infect the upper classes with her lust for sex. The prostitute heroine of Maupassant’s ‘Boule de Suif,’ pressured by her traveling companions into servicing a Prussian officer, personifies the submission of France to the occupying forces. Hers is a pointless self-sacrifice; she remains the outcast.”
  • In a new interview, Mark Greif elaborates on the creative impulses that led to n+1: “It seemed as if there was no place to ridicule what genuinely needed to be ridiculed: the endless mendacity and fatuity of the business culture and marketing culture. And it also seemed as if there was no place in which people did not rigidly segment political imaginations and hopes from literary desires and foppish aestheticism. Whereas it seemed clear to us that our foppish aestheticism and political desires were all from the same well … It is a strange thing to come into the world after university, or after years or reading, knowing that you can do the things that your elders do, and you can do them much better. You can write better books than what they’re writing, you could teach courses when they should not be. And then to find that actually, it’s your obligation to enter into a decade or more of false apprenticeship. And it’s a real question, what you do with that. One thing is to leave the field altogether; another is to try to hold onto your soul while you’re writing copy for someone.”
  • Rodin was the world’s twenty-seventh highest-grossing artist at auction last year, but the guy’s just not popular enough. With the centenary of his death upon us, maybe the guy can finally start raking it in. Scott Reyburn writes: “Rodin was the preeminent sculptor of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era, and The Kiss and The Thinker are among the most instantly recognizable sculptures in the world. Yet for all their fame, Rodin’s sculptures have yet to command the blockbuster prices paid for trophy paintings by his radical contemporaries Monet and Cézanne—or indeed for the most desirable sculptures by Brancusi or Henry Moore … As the British sculptor and teacher William Tucker wrote in the 1974 book The Language of Sculpture, when ‘taken as a whole,’ Rodin’s work strikes us as being ‘heavy with the nineteenth century.’ And that isn’t where the really big money is.”